It took more than four decades until in the year 2000 Jack Kilby was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for the co-invention of the microchip. Today these small integrated circuits are not only the basis of the current digital age, but for almost two years they have kept the economy in suspense due to the lack of supply. So much so that Europe has conspired to end its dependence on Asian factories and Spain dreams of having a say in this renewed claim to industrial sovereignty. At least, the Government has reserved 12,250 million euros in European aid to try to rearm an ecosystem that had something to say in the nineties but that, just one year after the Swedish Academy recognized the importance of the Kilby integrated circuit, it was diluted almost like a sugar cube when the AT&T semiconductor factory in Tres Cantos (Madrid), a benchmark at the time, closed.
“That factory was somewhat orphaned precisely due to a lack of ecosystem. But that experience shows that a leading factory can be established in Spain successfully and that is the challenge. But above all, it is not just about having one or two factories [en el sector denominadas foundries por tratarse de fundiciones de silicio]”. The quote is from Jaume Martorell, a Silicon Valley veteran and one of those responsible for attracting that cutting-edge investment in the eighties and who now wants to repeat the milestone from his position as commissioner of the Strategic Project for Economic Recovery and Transformation (PERTE). of semiconductors, the mechanism with which the Government wants to create a consistent conglomerate on which the Spanish microchip industry is based. Its policy goes hand in hand with the community, hopeful that the million trillion (one one and 18 zeros behind) of chips that are currently manufactured in the world will have to double in the next ten years driven by digitization and the European Union wants have a production quota of 20%, which will mean multiplying its current capacity by four.
Getting one or two large semiconductor factories would be the jewel that would crown that Spanish plan. For this, PERTE has reserved more than 9,350 million euros of aid in the form of capital, but it competes with the rest of the European countries. Intel has already announced its intention to invest 17,000 million in a plant in Magdeburg (Germany) and STMicroelectronics proposes another to produce wafers (the base on which the integrated circuit is built) in northern Italy for 730 million. This sector offers a wide range of industrial facilities, from producing modest chips for a refrigerator to high-performance microchips that can cost €1 billion to develop, such as the miniatures used by the latest generation mobile phones.
“It is not necessary that the factory that is installed in Spain be of the latest generation, in fact where there are shortage problems is in the most mature chips, so perhaps it would be better to bet on this type of factory,” he points out, like other respondents. , the manager of the Spanish Association of the Semiconductor Industry, Alfonso Gabarrón. In his opinion, the Government should bet on attracting the manufacture of products that are in high demand in the country so that even those manufacturers could participate in their design. He refers specifically to the automotive industry, of which Spain is the second largest European producer, since “we don’t have phone manufacturers here.” Especially when the brands are in full conversion to manufacture electric cars, which require about 14,000 semiconductor components in each of their vehicles, compared to the 5,000 that a combustion vehicle requires. But the example could be transferred to the producers of machine tools or the sector of telecommunications or health.
PERTE reserves 7,250 million for a high-capacity semiconductor manufacturing plant (around five nanometers), used in telecommunications, consumer electronics and data centers, and another 2,100 to be able to produce larger, not so demanding chips . The idea is that they begin to build in two or three years; there are conversations that Martorell defends that are “discreet”. These plants are important, but, as Martorell stated, it is not just about that. “The example is the United States, which despite manufacturing only 10% of the chips, designs 60% and it is evident that it has a highly developed ecosystem and tries to bring manufacturing to the United States. We want to do the same”, affirms the commissioner.
Spain claims above all in the field of chip design and the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC) wants to invest heavily in this area, taking advantage of the capacity of Mare Nostrum 6 (which allows us to think about what deadlines they think, since in the middle of the year will come into operation on 5). The organization leads a European project known as RISC-V, a kind of open system such as Linux on personal computers to control microprocessors that would allow collaboration between a diversity of research centers and companies. “A chip without software it’s like a car without gasoline”, explains Mateo Valero, director of the BSC, who for seven years has been preaching for the EU to validate this system that emerged from the University of Berkeley. “Until now microprocessors were linked to a hardware that their manufacturers defined, now we are going to define a set of instructions for the processor that does not belong to anyone, so that everyone can make processors”, he points out, sure that they will be able to get accelerators like the ones designed by the American multinational Nvidia or prestigious processors like the Pentium. But it is a long-distance race, which can last beyond five years, with a long chain of trial and error.
The Barcelona center, which has been working on chip design for 15 years, will lead the project and has managed to generate a knock-on effect. Intel has promised to open a semiconductor design laboratory at the BSC with the same technology, which will entail an investment of 400 million euros over the next ten years, shared 50% with the State. Like Intel, the American company Cisco has also opted to open a similar laboratory in the city, which will be its first design center in the European Union.
The BSC is not the only leading center working on the development of semiconductors. There is another aspect in which Spain can also play an essential role due to the relevance of some research centers, such as the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO). “The photonic chip makes it possible to reduce the size and cost of photonic components that are made with larger structures, such as when they went from the television valve to the transistor,” explains Valerio Pruneri, who leads the ICFO photoelectronics team. Experts consider that photonic chips, which are not based on silicon like electronic ones, could be a great battlefield for Spain to gain a place in the industry.
Multiple companies have emerged from the research centers. One of them is Sparc, a company that plans to have a wafer factory for the field of photonics up and running by 2025, which will combine commercial production (80% of its capacity) and research and development activity. It is an example that it is possible to carry out initiatives with a modest amount of resources, if the costs of large foundries. It will invest 66 million and intends to make a hole in a technology of which there are only four factories in Europe, and two of them focused solely on research. Francisco Díaz, professor of Telecommunications at the University of Vigo and CEO of the company, defends that his proposal will be the only one in Europe that works with three different materials and that it intends to be “an entry point for the ecosystem”: “If someone If you want to develop a product and get a schedule and a budget to have a prototype, you will be able to do it, and we would have synergies with the National Microelectronics Center and the Valencia Center”.
José Capmany, director of the Photonics Research Labs-iTEAM of the Universitat Politècnica de València (UPV), is clearly committed to new fields that allow entering the semiconductor business and photonics is an opportunity: “It has a time difference of 30 with respect to electronics, but Europe has some leadership and investments are not as powerful as those required by electronic semiconductors”.
In addition to making itself known, Spain has another problem: the highly-trained personnel that the new semiconductor market in Spain will require if the investments are confirmed. “We have 10 of the 65 important positions closed, but people from outside will have to come and those people will have to train people,” explains Francisco García. PERTE has reserved 80 million euros to create an educational network that helps train this workforce.
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